The Sin of Moses and the Staff of God: A Narrative Approach
Johnson Lim Teng Kok
What really was the sin of Moses that prevented him from entering the Land with Israel? While this might seem like a rather narrow question to answer —or to write a book about— it’s one of those instances that go to the foundations of the justice of God. Was Moses really banned from leading Israel into the Land just because he hit a rock, rather than speaking to it? Or is there more to this story? What about Aaron? He seems to have been completely passive throughout this entire episode —why was he banned from the Land for what appears to be doing nothing? The author of this book —really an edited and expanded version of the author’s doctoral thesis— addresses these issues.
The first part of The Sin of Moses starts by simply outlining different theories of the origins of the Tanakh. This section will probably be useful for someone who’s never really spent any time looking at the JEDP theory, or more recent counters to the JEDP theory. Dr. Kok appears to subscribe to the JEDP theory, referencing it in various places throughout his writing, so it’s a useful introduction.
The second part discusses the narrative structure of the first five books of the Old Testament, an important topic because the author’s argument revolves around the narrative nature of the story of the Exodus, tying the two “water from the rock” stories from Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 together. An exegesis of the two relevant passages is presented in the next section, and then a critique of the various explanations given in the past.
Dr. Kok digs up and expounds on a wide variety of theories about why the sin of Moses was so serious. He includes:
- The text was altered at some point to “cover up,” the real sin of Moses and Aaron, as a tribute to these great leaders.
- The story was “made up,” at some point long after Israel was in the Land in order to explain why Moses and Aaron died before leading the people in.
- The rash speech of Moses when he struck the rock, either in his anger or in his apparent taking credit for the miracle, cause God’s anger.
- That Moses used Aaron’s staff wrongly by using it to strike the rock, threatening the existence of a symbol that was supposed to stand before Israel as a witness for all time.
- That Moses spoke at all in performing the miracle (in all the other cases he had apparently remained silent).
- That Moses struck the rock, rather than simply talking to it. This is either simple disobedience, or it is a destruction of a type God was developing.
The author works through all the positive and negative aspects of each of these alternatives, and finalyl discards all of them as not fully explaining the situation described in the narrative.
In the final chapter, Dr. Kok develops his own theory about what this sin was, and why God treated it so heavily. In essence, he combines several of the previously explored theories and adds a new element to them.
All this means that Moses and Aaron demonstrate no trust (… Num 20:12a), act treacherously (… Deut 32:51), and rebel against God (… Num 20:24, 27:14). Through the misuse of (the staff of God) (Exodus 4:20, 17:9) in striking the rock, Moses failed to demonstrate God’s holiness … (‘before the eyes of Israel’ Num 20:12; 27:24; cf 32:51 ‘in the midst of the children of Israel’). This makes sense when we recall the central purpose of the Torah is to show clearly God’s power and his interest in ISrael. Their failure to uphold the holiness of God was a ‘denial of his transcendent uniqueness and lordship and an attempt, conscious or not, to reduce him to a human level’ (Merrill 1994:429). -Page 165